by Bhikkhu Yogananda
My friend Tom Rosenberg sent me a copy of his film Ñāṇavīra Hamuduru. It’s a labour of love and a fitting tribute to a monk who has influenced many of us in the way we approach the Buddha’s teaching. I’m glad that the film seems to have triggered an interest among Colombo Buddhists when it was screened on July 18, and I hope that it could eventually be made available for free online viewing.
The Island reviewer of the film, though clearly being sympathetic, seems to be fascinated with the suicide rather than Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s writings. According to the article, “[m]uch more controversial to the interested and sympathetic person is Nanavira Thera’s suicide, more than his unique interpretation and exposition of the Dhamma”. The reviewer admits to being “sadly ignorant of his views on the Teachings having not read a single of his books but feeling real karuna at his suffering physically, emotionally and mentally”.
This line of thinking seems to have prevented many Buddhists from making use of Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s writings meaningfully. To quote Dr. John Stella:
Critics have been appalled by the correspondence with his physician and his publisher wherein he contemplates putting an end to his life. They have used it as a weapon to attack him personally and to discredit his Notes on Dhamma. Supposedly, one who could commit such a desperate act was surely non compos mentis and could not possibly perceive the Dhamma correctly: those ‘morbid’ thoughts prove his ideas are flawed, or worse, deluded. But such specious reasoning should really be an object of satire. Had Shakespeare taken his life, would his plays be a whit less meaningful? Should we dismiss the dialogues of Socrates because he drank poison? And what about the arahants mentioned in the Suttas who ‘used the knife’? Did they not comprehend the Buddha’s Teaching?
Clearly, the real question is whether Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s ideas on Dhamma hold up to scrutiny. It is a pity to spend even a few words refuting ad hominem arguments, but as he would say, although the ‘seasoned thinker’ will be wise to them, they could deceive readers unacquainted with logical fallacies.
Apparently the notice sent out announcing the screenings said: “This film looks at the issue of monastic suicide within the context of Ñāṇavīra Thera’s commitment to practicing the Buddhist Dhamma.” I believe what one considers more important here — the suicide or the commitment to practice (and the resultant writings) — is an indication of how serious a person is about the Buddha’s teachings.
The film itself does not go into the details of Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s interpretation. It is no doubt difficult for a 20-minute biographical documentary to adequately cover such a complex topic. Yet it did include a good overview featuring one of my favourite Ñāṇavīra quotes:
Only in a vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence, is a man capable of apprehending the perilous insecurity of his situation; and only a man who does apprehend this is prepared to listen to the Buddha’s Teaching.
I was a little disappointed then that the experts interviewed for the film failed to discuss this most important point. Neither Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne nor Mr. Bogoda Premaratne found it worthwhile to say that Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s biggest contribution was pointing out that the Buddha’s teaching needs to be applied subjectively; that it has litle to do with an objective world. In Dr. Stella’s words:
Heavily reliant on twentieth-century Western philosophy and literature, [Notes on Dhamma] boldly introduces existentialist ideas into the Canon, and the meaning to be deduced from it becomes readily apparent. Ven. Ñāṇavīra quickly cautions us that the Existentialists are in no wise a substitute for the Buddha, for whatever their merits, they found ‘No Exit’ to the dilemmas they posed and consequently remained puthujjanas. Nevertheless, he learned from them that one must take a ‘vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence’ in order to progress in the Dhamma. He relentlessly asserts that meaning of the Canon relates to me, to my problems, my frustrations, my sorrows, and their resolution—and nothing else. He regarded the ‘horizontal’ or impartial view, so often taken by post-canonical texts, as a kaṇha dhamma: a ‘dark teaching’, not leading to awakening, or to borrow an existentialist idiom, yet another act of ‘bad faith’.
I find this to be the least understood aspect of Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s writings, probably because it is incredibly difficult to change one’s perspective as required, especially if one is entrenched in the traditional interpretation. But without getting this right, I do not see how one can understand or appreciate Notes on Dhamma. Subjectivity is fundamental to the ‘Ñāṇavīrist’ interpretation. Incidentally, this is something ignored by Mr. Bogoda Premaratne in his Sinhala ‘translations’ of Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera too, thus sadly misrepresenting him.
Though I no longer consider myself a ‘Ñāṇavīrist’, I would always be grateful to Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera for pointing out this extremely important characteristic of the Buddha’s teachings. I deeply admire him for being such a committed practitioner for whom the Dhamma was the ‘only thing to be taken seriously’. Tom Rosenberg’s film is a beautiful introduction to the life and works of this often misunderstood monastic rebel who has inspired many of us to question the tradition and our own commitment to the Dhamma.